Rav Chaim Kanivsky Shlita was once asked an interesting question (Derech Sicha p, 174): Should a woman delay her surgery so that it can be done on her birthday?
Where was this question coming from? Some people are of the opinion that noticing and or celebrating birthdays is not a particularly Jewish action. They note that the only mention we find of birthdays is in regard to the evil Pharoah. While there are certainly opinions that held this, in this essay, it will be suggested that this is not necessarily the case and that, noting someone’s birthday may very well be a Jewish thing to do.
So where do we begin? We must first realize that there exists a Mitzvah of V’ahavta l’rayacha Kamocha, loving others as we do ourselves. It is always important to make these others realize that we care about them individually and that we genuinely value who they are. It should not be perfunctory, but real. What better way to do this than a birthday?
And now onward to the sources. The Gemorah in Moed Kotton 28a records that Rav Yoseph made a party on the occasion of his 60th birthday. This was because he had avoided the punishment of Kares. It is unclear, however, if this can serve as a paradigm for other birthday parties or just for a 60th.
However, the Midrash Saichel Tov (Bereishis 40:20) notes that “most people celebrate that day that they were born and are joyous during this time and hold a party. The Yerushalmi (Rosh HaShana 3:8) tells us that a person does not quickly fall on his “Yom Ginusiyah.” Rashi in Bereishis (4:20) explains that Pharoah’s birthday is called Yom Ginusiyah. This Yerushalmi indicates that a birthday is a special day, not just for recognition, but it seems to be an auspicious time to avoid harm. Rav Tzadok (Rsisei Laila Divrei Chalomos-20) writes this explicitly. The Ben Ish Chai states that some have the custom to make the birthday a kind of “yom Tov” and a Siman Tov – then he adds, “and so we conduct ourselves in our home.”
Yes, the Ben Ish Chai had birthday parties.
Nor was he the only one. The Ksav Sofer writes in his response (Yore Deah Vol. II #148) that he held a fiftieth birthday party. He writes that he made a special siyum on the tractate Psachim for the occasion. He states there that his father, the Chsam Sopher did the same thing – he made a siyum on Chumash with his students on the occasion of his birthday on the 7th of Tishrei – and he gave out coins so they can purchase lachmei chalav (an early prototype of the now ever popular cupcake). The Chsam Sopher’s own Rebbe Rav Natan Adler (See Igros Sofrim p. 83) held a birthday party for his mother on her 80th birthday and invited the whole town!
It says in the biography of the Chofetz Chaim that he held a birthday party on his 90th (or 80th) birthday on 11 Shvat 5688 and finished his manuscript entitled, “Beis Yisroel” for the occasion. In 1909, on the afternoon of Rosh Chodesh Shvat, on the occasion of Rav Shmuel Salant’s 93rd birthday a party was held at his house right after Chatzos with greetings, celebration and a cake. Virtually all of Yerushalayim was in attendance including the staff of the Bikur Cholim hospital, the Chevra Kadisha and the BaDatz of Yerushalayim. The event was reported in the February edition of Chavatzelet p. 235.
In the HaMaayan (Tammuz 5731) the ethical will of Rav Yisroel Lipshitz (1782-1860, the author of the Tiferes Yisroel commentary on the Mishna and the Rav of Danzig, is cited where he tells each member of his family that on the occasion of their birthdays all the siblings should send birthday greetings of Mazal Tov! He also writes that this custom should not be negated, only if there is absolute emergency.
Another issue is the intent, the Kavana, of the birthday party and of the greeting. The intent should be one of Hakaras HaTov to Hashem – thanking Hashem for yet another year of existence. Let’s not foget that Hakaras HaTov is one of the fundamentals of the Torah way of life. Why was Adam HaRishon punished during his short sojourn in the Garden of Eden? Contrary to popular thought – It was not because he ate of the Eitz HaDaas – the forbidden fruit. Rather, it was his lack of Hakaras HaTov, being someone who expresses gratitude. How so? He responded to Hashem, “The woman that You gave me, forced me to eat of the fruit..” It was for the lack of appreciation for the gift that was Chava that caused the decline of mankind. Celebrating the birthday out of a sense of Hakaras HaTov would involve very lofty thoughts of Hakaras HaTov – a moral pre-requisite for all the Mitzvos in the Torah.
It is true, however, that the Munkatcher Rebbe (Divrei Torah 5:88) and others too, expressed the view that birthdays are a foreign thing and have no precedent in Judaism. The Munkatcher Rebbe writes that the reason is because of the notion that, “it is better for a person not to have been born in this world, but now that he is born he should do his duties and serve Hashem..” Therefore, he concludes, we should not be celebrating birthdays. If we can rely on the Derech Sicha who cites Rav Chaim Kaniefsky on this issue as well, he was of the opinion that birthdays should not be celebrated either – against our citations from the Chsam Sofer, the Ksav Sofer, the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Shmuel Salant.
What then do we do with all the above sources? There is a Tosfos HaRosh that qualifies this thought (Eiruvin 13b) of “better for a person not to have been born” that it refers only to people whose ways have not been determined that they are destined to perform and do good. So for evil people a birthday party would be wrong, for regular people who are more good than bad it is the right and proper thing to do.
It seems to this author that there exists an argument between the Tosfos HaRosh and the Tosfos in regard to how to resolve the following apparent contradiction: The Gemorah in Avodah Zarah states, “Let us give thanks to our forefathers for if they did not sin we would never have arrived in this world!” Yet the Gemorah in Eiruvin states, better for a person not to have been born.” Tosfos seems to resolve it by stating that the Gemorah in Avodah Zarah refers only to the Tzadikkim. Tosfos HaRosh seems to learn that the Gemorah in Eiruvin refers only to those who have not chosen the path of good. The difference between them lies in the regular, average person.
It seems to this author that those authorities who advocated celebrating birthdays in general would hold like the Tosfos HaRosh, while those who were against it would hold like Tosfos in resolving the contradiction.
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